8 March 2022

By Gill Callister, CEO Mind Australia

Every year International Women’s Day (IWD) rolls around and I’m reminded of the 1979 cinematic masterpiece Alien.

Ripley, portrayed by the incomparable Sigourney Weaver, is faced with a seemingly indefatigable foe, as characterised by one of the all-time great lines:

How do we kill it, there's got to be a way of killing it, how, how do we do it?

The response: You can't.

It’s this sense of despondency that often comes to the fore for me every March 8. New year, same old conversations.

Of course, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea of IWD. At its core, the ideals are well, ideal. The United Nations IWD message talks about “gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, while the rather commercialised International Women’s Day site asks us to “celebrate women's achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality”.

But the idea that we focus on these issues for one day, implies that we spend the other 364 doing something else altogether. And the evidence suggests we do.

Taking action for equality might be better served as an everyday occurrence so we are not citing statistics on the gender pay gap at IWD events year after year (or at least for as many as I can remember). This is an eminently fixable issue.

And don’t get me started on the morning teas, pink balloons and this year’s request to take a selfie striking the IWD 2022 pose – “Cross your arms to show solidarity” – seriously? Will this change anything at all? My feelings on the tokenism of surrounding these events is summarised quite concisely in this article by Australian journalist Kristine Ziwica who says:

“We won’t give you true equality, but here, have a scone.” As for what we should do instead, author Jen Doll summed it up back in 2012 – yes, 2012!

“The best thing women can do every day of their lives is to be strong and demand respect, and to support the rights of women who may not be so lucky.” As CEO of Mind Australia – a not-for-profit dedicated to supporting people experiencing mental health and wellbeing concerns – it’s hard not to feel frustrated by what feels like an abundance of IWD celebrations which fly in the face of the harsh realities women confront every day.

We experience higher rates of gender-based discrimination, higher rates of family violence and higher rates of eating disorders – to name a few. And the pandemic? It’s only made things worse, This Grattan Institute report notes:

  • Women have had increased carer responsibility due to the rise in home schooling.
  • Women were also a greater risk of contracting COVID-19 for ‘front line’ workers. (People who identify as women represent 71 per cent of Mind’s frontline workforce.)
  • A higher percentage of women lost jobs and working hours than men.
  • Remote learning and the loss of formal and informal childcare and household support services led to a big rise in unpaid work during the lockdowns. Mind’s Caring Fairly research shows that more than two-thirds of unpaid carers are women.

Mind research, conducted in collaboration with six other community managed mental health organisations, found women with mental health conditions were more adversely impacted by COVID-related restrictions.

Anxiety, depression and stress caused by job loss and isolation, can further exacerbate existing mental health conditions, which don’t just snap back once restrictions ease.

And so here we are; months out from a federal election, studies demonstrating the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women, and reflecting on a year that catapulted a number of courageous women into the spotlight highlighting the structural and systemic abuse of women either perpetrated or enabled or ignored by those in positions of significant power.

You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t feel like striking an “IWD pose” when we have a lack of gender-responsive services and not enough places where women in mental distress can go where they know they are going to be safe and supported.

Where is the gender-specific support? Where are the mental health services dedicated to addressing and supporting the needs of women?

The solutions aren’t that hard to find.

Mind is a proud member of the Women’s Mental Health Alliance (WMHA) – a coalition of organisations and individuals who advocate for all women to be able to access evidence-based, gender-sensitive and trauma-informed mental health support.

WMHA put forward a number of recommendations to deliver safe services for women in response to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

They included a commitment for acute systems to create dedicated single gender units and gender separated communal spaces, gender sensitivity training and capacity-building for all mental health workforces.

A key recommendation of the Royal Commission was to provide better mental health treatment for Victorian women and in positive news, the Victorian government has announced a $100 million investment into an Australian-first Specialist Women’s Mental Health Service.

The pandemic-induced surge of women experiencing mental health and wellbeing concerns has made it clear: now is the time to both invest in gender-specific support and tailor existing supports of meet the needs of women.

It’s time to listen and work with women with lived experience in a way that is not coercive or re-traumatising.

It’s time to take a holistic approach to women’s mental health that recognises intersectionality.

It’s time to require public reporting on performance and progress on the gender pay gap, for example – company by company.

It’s time to use IWD as an opportunity to amplify actions not selfies.

After all, Ripley does defeat the alien in the end (let’s not talk about the sequels).